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The apocalypse has a good beat and you can dance to it.
That’s one summary (in the old "American Bandstand" parlance) of the point of view proposed in “Burn All Night,” a new danceclub-mimicking musical making its world premiere at American Repertory Theater’s alternative space, Oberon.
It makes for a fun night out, particularly for audience members who opt for standing-room tickets and see the show unfold around them, as director Jenny Koons uses Oberon’s flexible space to good advantage. (Start dancing conspicuously during one of the bigger numbers and you may gain a cast member as temporary partner.) With a young and diverse cast, book and lyrics by “Smash” star Andy Mientus, and a synth-pop score by members of Brooklyn band Teen Commandments, the show all but declares itself a Generational Statement.
But amidst its euphoric rush, it neglects to create fully fleshed characters (the principal ones get less of an arc than a quick smudge) or a story that budges much after the opening scene of the second act. And with a weirdly retro score, it all ends up feeling more like an emphatic proposal for a poignantly contemporary musical than the actual thing.
The scene is New York City, current day. The story follows a group of 20-somethings who navigate their clubbing lifestyle amid rumbling warnings of an imminent global disaster. Lincoln Clauss excels as an attractively starry-eyed Bobby, a recent college graduate from Pittsburgh who takes a bus to New York City with no plans for a place to stay but fortunately runs into an old friend from middle school immediately upon arrival. That friend is Holly, played by Krystina Alabado as a confident young woman who seems likely to triumph over the traumas of a difficult childhood.
Ken Clark is the bushy-bearded and embittered Zak, a musician who already feels pigeonholed by a radio hit he had two years prior, which gives him a reliable encore number but has failed to deliver him from the circuit of dingy Brooklyn bars where he plies his trade with flagging enthusiasm. Perry Sherman is instantly charismatic as Will, the privileged son of a wealthy and famous father, now deceased.
There’s some romantic backstory, presented as a way-too-confusing puzzle to be solved. The show derives its thematic significance from casual references to “the end of the world” that wind up manifested by a series of earthquakes and an apparent breakdown in social order that is seen only in sideways glances. There are references (mainly in the song lyrics) to the use of drugs as an escape from the pressures of #adulting, but we get no sense that the series of alcohol-fueled parties are taking a toll. When two characters wonder, at the show’s end, how they got so far away from themselves, the query seems to come from nowhere.
The aggressively contemporary dialogue rings true to me, with offhand, pseudo-spiritual references to “the universe” and a poignant description of using a smartphone in public as a way to “be alone when you can’t be alone.” But the music, written by Van Hughes, Nicholas LaGrasta and Brett Moses and performed by an onstage quartet, feels like the least contemporary element of this ostensibly bleeding-edge musical. The opening number, complete with invitation to “step into the fire,” sounds like it’s from the soundtrack of an ‘80s movie. The synth-pop dance flavors wind up a bit monochromatic, even if often rousing. The score seems to represent little of anything musically important that’s currently happening in the Brooklyn bars or downtown dance clubs that provide the show’s locales.
The quartet of protagonists is augmented by a seven-person chorus (“The Kids”) who represent a group of friends and random clubbers, mugging for selfies and moving around the room via choreography by Sam Pinkleton, who was nominated for a Tony Award this year for his work on “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” For that show he memorably reconfigured the A.R.T.’s main stage over on the other side of Harvard Square, but he knows Oberon intimately as well: Pinkleton also worked on “RoosevElvis,” “Kansas City Choir Boy” and “ONTHEFLOOR,” all presented in that space.
For “Burn All Night,” Pinkleton and Koons devise a few big numbers with unison choreography (first-act-closer “Famous” is a barnburner), but for much of the show The Kids move around the space with what looks, impressively, like individual agency. Their movements are stylized, but only in the sense that anyone in a party or club presents a heightened version of him-or-herself. When they flood the room, or when pairs of actors play scenes on risers slid into position amid audience members, it’s easy to get swept up into the energy of the moment.
“Burn All Night” is premiering only a few weeks after the American president blusteringly threatened to rain “fire and fury” upon a(nother) unstable nuclear power. So the idea of prepping for the end of the world cuts a little close. But of course, that makes it good artistic fodder. The threatened coming of the apocalypse, of any making, is powerful because of its mix of the personal and the universal. It’s the end of everything, which also means the end of you.
So when it comes about in “Burn All Night” in a vaguely explained way, we feel curiously distant from the crisis. It’s possible to withhold information strategically in a way that heightens tension; here, the details of the show’s central premise seem stubbornly underwritten. So too the not-particularly-compelling love triangle that is exposed midway through, with little additional story left to fill out the show’s run time from there.
In its best moments, “Burn All Night” conveys the confusing difficulty of asserting your own identity when everything around you is changing. The sense of young people experiencing the world as something that spins, by turns, much too fast and much too slow, is potent.
This show presents a winningly energetic performance by its ensemble and band, and I found myself rooting for it all to come together. But with its visions of the personal and of the universal both similarly muddied, its impact winds up as something less than apocalyptic.
"Burn All Night" is at A.R.T.'s Oberon through Sept. 8.
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